Taking a back seat; or, the 'trailing spouse'
When we first moved abroad I kept my job from the UK and worked from home, thanks to the understanding and flexibility of my former employer. And yet, notice the adjective 'former' employer. Unfortunately the role wasn't really suited to telecommuting (or perhaps I wasn't suited) and by six months in I had left.
I then found myself in the position of many people I've met here- partner of someone whose job led them abroad, and in a kind of weird (but incredibly privileged) position. Moving back to the UK for me to find work isn't a very attractive option since we love it here, but it's still an option. Much better would be for me to find work in Lyon.
So... I could look for a similar role to one I had before, but with a French company. My French could use some work, and it would be hard with my current level of fluency, but possible. However, part of the reason we are so happy here is the freedom we have with our lives because I'm not currently tied to a nine-to-five (my husband works shifts so he's not on a regular routine) and that would completely change if I got a full-time role.
So do I look for part-time work? Try and find something not too constrictive that we can build our schedule around? And what would that look like... a bar, a restaurant, a shop? All jobs I have done before and could do again, but not really my number one ambition. During the last school year I looked after and taught English to kids part-time, and while that was okay I didn't love it, or derive as much satisfaction as you're led to believe you will if you teach.
I understand that I'm in an extremely lucky position that I can be choosy about what kind of job I want, and I know that this luxury of time to decide is not normal and in no way am I trying to complain.
But I'm left in this strange position, with semi-regular writing jobs popping up, working but not really working. And shamefully not too bothered about the career I should be pursuing, but kind of bothered enough that I beat myself up about not contributing much to the household income.
It has made me realise that such a large part of our identity is (rightly or wrongly) tied up with our jobs, and not having a proper job title means you have a little bit less to say about yourself. Talking about work is an easy ice-breaker, a fall back conversation topic when the chat starts to falter, a first question when you get in the door in the evening.
We make so many- perhaps largely unconscious- sweeping generalisations about people based on what they do or don't do for a living. You can usually judge someone's income, education and class from that first “So what do you do?” question.
I have never been particularly career-minded, so it doesn't feel like I've sacrificed anything, but I know plenty of people over here who have had to wrestle with the decision of whether or not they are happy to neglect their own job prospects while their partner pursues opportunities. I know it's a struggle that's not exclusive to the expat community, but it feels heightened here somehow.
A question my husband asked me recently was whether he thought my willingness to let him take the lead with his career was because we both had internalised traditional gender roles, and I immediately said no, it's solely because he has a more focused career at the moment, and I've never really had much of a plan. When we discussed it further I had to admit that if I were a man and he were a woman I don't know if I would be so quick to move wherever his job took him, and take a random part-time job. It would be more expected to keep up a long-distance relationship while we both continued our careers. I don't really know how I feel about that.
In any case, I feel I struggle more with the perception of not working much than actually not working much. The freedom I have now is far more rewarding (to me, I know lots of people would hate it) than any job I've had. Plus I'm dreadfully lazy.